A Christmas Card from the SkepDoc

December 20, 2011

The holiday season is upon us. As a bit of a holiday from science-based writing, I thought I would offer some thoughts inspired by the season and not supported by any scientific evidence.

One of my friends refers to Christmas as “The Feast of St. Dyspepsia.” Holidays are indeed an occasion for over-indulging. People change their routine: they have time off work, they travel, spend too much money, go to parties, skip exercising, eat and drink things they ordinarily avoid, gain weight, and then suffer from post-holiday guilt.

Science and Mom both tell us we will be healthier if we eat our fruits and vegetables, exercise, avoid large quantities of alcohol, get enough rest, avoid stress, and control our weight. I would argue that if we follow that guidance most of the time, an occasional lapse is not likely to matter very much. And the pleasure we experience might even be good for our health.

Now for some heretical words.

Science isn’t everything. Health isn’t everything. Even truth isn’t everything. Humans find value in other things like music and mythology, things that bring great pleasure and help make life worth living.

We value truth, but tell white lies to be kind and to maintain interpersonal harmony (“No, those pants don’t make your butt look too big.”) Things that are not true play a big part in human life. Religions are based on myths — not your religion, of course, but certainly all of those other religions! We appreciate stories and read fiction for pleasure and enlightenment. We watch sci-fi and fantasy movies: we temporarily suspend judgment to accept the most improbable premises for the purpose of a good story.

Whether you think the “reason for the season” is axial tilt or Jesus’ birthday, Christmas probably matters to you in some way, either as a tradition to celebrate or an occasion to avoid the crowds at the mall. Even nonparticipants and bah-humbug curmudgeons can appreciate some things about it. The excitement is contagious, the decorations and lights are pretty and imaginative, the seasonal music can be appreciated for its own sake. The holiday season brings families and friends together. Santa isn’t real, but he has brought very real pleasure to generations of children and parents. The pleasure of giving and receiving gifts is very real, and gifts have meaning as tokens of love. Following family traditions serves to remember and honor our forebears and to reinforce family bonds.

New Year’s is not just an excuse to wear funny hats and drink champagne, to invite friends over for football and Hoppin’ John. It serves as a landmark to help us appreciate the passage of time and reflect on our history and our future plans. And it’s an occasion to relish the company of others, to relax, and to enjoy pleasures we usually deny ourselves.

So please keep reading Science-Based Medicine, but don’t forget that, along with science, there are other aspects to life that are valuable too. We find meaning in things like love and beauty that don’t readily lend themselves to randomized controlled trials. Science is essential, but it isn’t everything.

I hope you will enjoy the holiday season in your own way, that you will allow yourself some indulgences (hopefully short of St. Dyspepsia or St. Hangover), and that you won’t feel guilty about your holiday pleasures.

Merry Whatever You Choose and Best Wishes for a Fruitful New Year

from Harriet Hall, The SkepDoc

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

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